October 7, 2007

Comments by Moderator Jim Lynch

Moderator: Jim Lynch, author of The Highest Tide


Rachel Carson was an unlikely candidate to change the way Americans looked at planet earth. Yet this underdog, this bookish single woman who’d been writing seashore pamphlets for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sparked the modern day environmental movement in the middle of the last century at a time when sexism was in full bloom.

She accomplished it with a mixture of rare skills and gifts. Her precise and lyrical prose is often justifiably showcased as the source of her persuasive magic. But what’s often overlooked is how fearless she was in the subjects she tackled and the way she explained them. In The Sea Around Us, she not only dared to explain the beginnings of the planet and all that was known and unknown about our oceans, but she brought her lush imagination to the equation.

During this week’s readings alone, she helped us imagine the theory that the moon was originally part of the earth that ripped loose into the sky with the gouge it left behind filling with centuries of rain as the earth cooled. She described an ocean where “life is scattered everywhere like a fine dust.” She brought into eerie perspective that half of the planet’s surface is covered by miles of water through which light has never penetrated, a place where creatures feed on the endless “snowfall” of sediments from above. She asked us to picture the likelihood of the Atlantic eventually rising another hundred feet and splashing against the foothills of the Appalachians

Rachel’s imagination brought a romance to her science writing that turned the masses onto subjects they wouldn’t normally read. But her ideas, her habit of thinking big is what coaxed people to think about things they wouldn’t normally contemplate.

Her righteous activist streak popped up, although quietly, in “The Sea Around Us” as well. Consider her observation in “The Birth of an Island” chapter in which she recalled how birds on the Galapagos Islands used to be so friendly during Charles Darwin’s days that they’d land on your shoulder and pluck hair from your head for their nests. Instead of an amusing aside, however, she used it to make a sharp point about how interconnected humans are with all life.

“But man, unhappily has written one of the blackest records as a destroyer on the ocean islands … upon species after species of island life, the black night of extinction has fallen.”

She wrote that statement twenty-three years before the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973.

Rachel ultimately threw her biggest punches in Silent Spring more than a decade after The Sea Around Us. But her convictions about the harm man was doing to the planet were rooted in her oceanic studies. And that’s also what gave her the power to write as assertively as she did when it came to exposing just how destructive pesticides were in a country reticent to heed environmental alarms, particularly from a woman author. Her voice was so unusual at the time that many readers had a hard time getting their minds around who exactly they were listening to. She reputedly received letters from both fans and critics alike who assumed, despite her given name, that anyone writing so forcefully must be a man. “Dear Mr. Carson ….”

Rachel’s underdog story and her ability to think big helped me think bigger on the novel I wrote about the sea. Just seeing her daring prose and imagination at work, helped raise the bar for what I was attempting to accomplish.

Does reading Rachel help you put your own work into a larger perspective?

If you’re part of the Shippensburg crew doing Rachel-related research this month, are there ways in which you can bring more imagination to your research, or perhaps ways that thinking big will make whatever you’re doing more fascinating and relevant?

Perhaps Rachel’s work guides or moves you in other ways. Or maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps it feels dated and cumbersome. Regardless, please share your thoughts.

And please don’t forget to click on and comment on "Field Notes from The Sea Around Us " (in the right-hand column below the image of Rachel Carson) as the Shippensburg program heats up this week. Let’s get the discussions rolling.


julie said...

Congratulations to the originators and participants in the Shippensburg service learning project on the Chesapeake Bay. Rachel Carson would be proud that her books are inspiring such tangible efforts decades after publication.

Jim Lynch asks how her work inspires us to bigger things today. Carson's books, and this blog, remind me of the enduring power of printed words and how their impacts can grow as people discuss them. With this book club drawing to a close, I'm hoping that all the leaders and participants here will urge the organizers at Fish & Wildlife to offer another online book discussion group. I'm voting for A Sand County Almanac and Aldo Leopold for 2008, but there are plenty of possibilities. It might be especially nice to have a literary distraction in a big election year. . . .

Anonymous said...

In a geology class a long, long time ago, I remember a discussion about something called a Sloss Sequence. These are great thickness of sedimentary rocks that were deposited on top of what is now land. These rock sequences are distributed pretty much from coast to coast and in many cases are full of ancient marine organisms. Each sequence, however is demarcated by erosional surfaces that show evidence for lower sea levels and terrestrial rock deposits - like we have today.

The very concept that our own continent (and apparently all the others too) was flooded from coast to coast for a good part of Earth's history, was pretty much lost on me. The implication of that statement didn't sink in at the time. However now that the discussion of global warming has, pardon the pun, heated up, I now realize that modern sea level - the sea level we know today is no where near its highest point!

For me it was Carson's prediction (although not a new one even at her time) established through her magnificent prose that finally helped me envision the potential for a substantially higher sea level in our immediate future. Imagine the implications of a 100 foot higher sea-level. Real Estate Brokers if they were smart would start thinking about the foothills of the Appalachians if they want a return on their investments, and to heck with building on the coast now.

stephen said...

Reading the chapter entitled The Birth of an Island gives an appreciation for unique, fragil habitats, as well as for unique, fragil flora and fauna. I had not really thought of one of the less fragil life forms -- the rat -- as being so closely associated with man, and as being so destructive to island habitat.

While considering Jim's helpful commments about Rachel Carson thinking big, I came across a contrasting example this week that was striking. NBC Nightly News had a piece about spending federal tax dollars to, in part, protect habitat for the Ivory Bill Woodpecker, which the NBC producers considered a fleecing.
I wish they would read Rachel Carson's The Birth of an Island.

"In a reasonable world men would have treat these islands as precious possessions, as natural museums filled with beautiful and curious works of creation, valuable beyond price because nowhere in the world are they duplicated."

Amy Harmon said...

One part of Shippensburg's class deals with designing a living-learning center for the Honors Program. Our campus will be undergoing a great deal of change in the next few years. During this time, all of the current residence halls will be demolished and new ones erected. It is the goal of our group to secure space in one of these residence halls specifcally for Honors living-learning space. With the influence of Rachel Carson, we decided our hall should definitely be environmentally friendly. Therefore, we will promote guidelines (put together by our group) for "green" living for future residents. It is our bigger mission to persuade administration in a presentation on December 1st that ALL new residence halls be "green" and LEED certified. Hopefully, this would pave the way for similar institutions to implement "green" policies when constructing or remodeling!

Jess said...

Rachel Carson is inspiring in her work, particularly her encouragement of activism. As Amy mentioned, Shippensburg's class is now taking what we learned about Rachel and applying it to our campus community. We have been attending meeting after meeting the past few months to encourage the university to build a green honors living-learning center that would promote guidelines for green living. Whether the center is built or not, our class has still become actively engaged in the fight to save our environment. We've also learned what Rachel Carson felt like when her views were not appreciated, even if it is on a much smaller scale. Sometimes it's difficult to buck tradition and then other times, deviating from the norm motivates you. It teaches you more about yourself, more about others, and of course, more about the world (and sea) around you.

Jung07 said...

As part of the Shippensburg class project of proposing an Honors Green Living Learning Center, I had the chance to research the benefits of a building being green and LEED certified. I expected to find many environmental benefits, but I was surprised to find so many benefits for the residents of those Green buildings. For me, reading Rachel Carson's book and working on this project has really opened my eyes and inspired me to make a change in the environment and in my community.

Kelsey said...

Like the three previous bloggers, I too am part of the Honors class from Shippensburg University. I have always thought of myself as environmental-conscious. I grew up a Girl Scout and so I was always recycling, reducing energy and water usage, and trying to get others to do the same. It's not until this college class that I fully understand how big of an impact just one person can have. I had never heard of Rachel Carson until this class, and I wasn't really interested in reading her book or learning about her.Now that I have taken the time to learn about her and read her book I feel empowered to help others learn to stop abusing the environment. The first way will comes this Saturday when my classmates and I present our idea for a green honors living-learning center. Hopefully people's eyes will open to how beneficial being green is to the environment.

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